A confederacy of churches: far south siders trade economic development for airport quiet | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

A confederacy of churches: far south siders trade economic development for airport quiet 

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The gathering didn't get much attention--no reporters were present--but on November 20 Mayor Daley met with about 3,000 black residents at a church on the far south side. To rousing cheers and amens, he pledged to make money available for health programs and day-care facilities.

The residents were cashing in on some savvy organizing by the Developing Communities Project, one of the city's up-and-coming church-based community groups. The project has stitched together an impressive confederation of 20 south-side Catholic and Protestant churches in an area between the Calumet Expressway and Ashland Avenue, from 95th Street south to the city line.

That translates into a core group of nearly 4,000 churchgoing activists who have dedicated themselves to the difficult task of creating jobs and educational opportunities in communities damaged by years of recession and neglect. Their group is not one that Daley can easily overlook, particularly when he's trying to rally support for a Lake Calumet airport.

"We're proud of the negotiations we've done with the mayor, but we're proudest of the fact that we have brought together Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, and Christian Reformed denominations--which is no easy task," says Johnnie Owens Jr., executive director of the project. "We have united these denominations to maximize the strength of our once- neglected communities."

Parts of these communities, which include Roseland and Pullman, remain vibrant--home to thousands of teachers and CTA and federal employees. But there's no escaping the toll of a decade of economic decline. Many residents lost their jobs when nearby steel mills closed. The foreclosure rate in Roseland is among the highest in the city. Even federal and city employees worry about job security as government budgets are slashed.

"Like most communities, we have problems of gangs, crimes, and drugs," says the Reverend Alvin Love, pastor of the Lilydale First Baptist Church and vice president of the project's board. "It breaks my heart to say this, but there are times when I can look out the window of my church and see drug deals going on at the high school across the street."

In 1984 members of several local congregations decided to unite to fight such problems. "As church people you see the need, but you can only address the problems on a small scale," says June Nicholson, a lay leader with the Wesley United Methodist Church, one of the project's affiliates. "You can operate a church clothing pantry or a food pantry, but that only goes so far and you feel almost powerless. You get frustrated and overwhelmed."

A group of people--the project's founding president, Loretta Augustine; its former executive director, Barack Obama; the present associate director, Cassandra Lowe; and Johnnie Owens--got together and decided on the strategy of recruiting churches.

The idea, of course, was not completely original. Saul Alinsky, the University of Chicago-trained sociologist who wrote the book on community organizing, pioneered that tactic more than 50 years ago in the slaughterhouse neighborhood known as Back of the Yards. Since then the church-based model has been replicated in white and Hispanic neighborhoods throughout the city.

However, with the exception of the Woodlawn Organization, few Alinsky-style groups have taken root in all- black neighborhoods. One reason, Owens and others speculate, is that black churches tend to be much more independent. And organizing for the project was made more challenging by several high-profile and dynamic church leaders, including Love and the reverends Albert Shears of Maple Park United Methodist Church and James T. Meeks of the Salem Baptist Church.

"A pastor is usually the dominant figure in his or her church, and let's face it, you're going to have ego problems when you try to bring them together as a group," says Love. "We have to tell ourselves that what we're doing is bigger than any one church or preacher. We're coming together to effect change, and to do that you have to get beyond ego. That's not to say that egos are not there. We [preachers] often meet in private, argue, and somehow hash our disagreements out."

Last summer the project gathered about 800 members at the Salem Church to plot strategy and set goals. "We called it an issues convention," says Loretta Augustine. "We didn't tell the community what they needed. We asked them to tell us. We settled on three issues: youth, health, and economic development."

Local officials were invited to that meeting, including Bob Repel, Daley's chief airport adviser. "It was Repel who came to us and said that maybe we could meet with the mayor and discuss some of the points on their agenda," says Owens. "That's what got everything going."

On the surface Repel's presence may seem a little strange. After all, the airport adviser does not oversee health, education, or job policy. But upon closer inspection it makes sense. The airport would adjoin Roseland and Pullman. Residents there would not be displaced, but their lives would be inconvenienced by the noise and smell of airplane traffic. If Daley's airport is to win state and federal approval, support from Roseland and Pullman is crucial. At the very least Daley did not want residents from these communities to actively oppose the airport. "The airport was an opportunity to meet with the mayor and discuss other issues," says June Nicholson. "But I wouldn't want to say we were being manipulative or conniving. We were looking out for the interests of our community."

In the fall Repel met with project leaders, who outlined their communities' needs. At the head of the list were day care and improved health facilities. "We also felt the need for more job training, particularly in the area of engineering," says Augustine. "What good would an airport be if our residents were not trained to work there? We needed the skills before we could get the jobs."

Eventually, meetings were arranged with representatives of the state, which subsidizes day-care facilities, and the City College system. "We were hoping that we could get the City Colleges to work in conjunction with the city to offer courses that would help train residents to work in the airport," says Owens. "We also wanted 1,000 day-care slots, which were important because they not only provide jobs and give parents the freedom to find work, but prepare our children for their future education."

The project leaders were not prepared to endorse the airport. But they would not oppose it--providing Daley named a planner who'd work with them to minimize noise and air pollution.

No one knew how Daley would react. Most of the project's leaders had been loyal supporters of Harold Washington, and few of them had voted for Daley. In fact, they had been disappointed that he was elected and disillusioned by the often petty power spats among black politicians that followed Washington's death.

Yet in September they met privately with Daley and Repel, and within a few minutes Daley had eagerly agreed to all of their requests. "He was very agreeable," says Alvin Love. "He said yes to everything. In retrospect, we might have asked for more."

The activists realized that private commitments are not as enforceable as public ones. So they invited Daley to appear before their November convention. "We wanted Daley to say publicly what he told us in private," says Love. "I said, "Mr. Mayor, we have a tradition in the church to say amen, so we say amen to jobs and amen to economic development and amen to health. And when Daley got up to speak he said amen. He reaffirmed his promise for the day-care slots and the training and the health facility. And the whole time we were taping his speech on film."

The process showed that black community groups could negotiate with a white mayor. "I think Daley was pleased to get such a fair reception from so many black people," says Owens. "And I have to say that we were pleased with his response. Of course, we're going to be working hard to make sure that everything works as planned. We're in a new situation--it's the post-Harold Washington era. And I think it's important that black communities not allow themselves to be shut out."

The group's leaders are still ironing out details with state, city, and City College officials. "The fact that we got this far is a victory," says Augustine. "This is about a community learning to assemble its resources for a common good."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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