Faith leaders meet with Mayor-elect Emanuel on community issues, reform agenda

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Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel met with faith leaders in an effort to garner their support and input in the reforms he plans to institute once he takes over as leader of the city.

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel met with faith leaders in an effort to garner their support and input in the reforms he plans to institute once he takes over as leader of the city.

Emanuel met behind closed doors March 9 at 35th St. Cafe restaurant, 1735 W. 35th St., with dozens of clergy representing a multi-cultural mix of faith leaders, but most of them were African American.

The mayor-elect emerged from the confab with optimism and a wealth of ideas for implementing his reform agenda and having the faith leaders be a part of it, he said at the press conference that immediately followed at the restaurant.

“(It was) a very good discussion about they are more than just pastors in their respective congregations and churches, they are leaders in their community,” Emanuel said. Revs. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church, Wayne Gordon of Lawndale Community Church and Stephen Thurston of New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church were among the ministers present at the meeting.

The clergy are leaders in “communities that need jobs and economic growth, that need schools where congregants can send their kids to get a quality education, and public safety,” said the former congressman and White House chief of staff. Issues like that “is where I am going to steady my focus.”

Though the issues are ones that the faith leaders say their respective churches, in their own ways, have tried to address, several of them said it was good to have the mayor-elect meet with them to discuss them further. Concerns for jobs, public education, public safety and violence are more community-wide and touch congregations all over the city, Emanuel and the clergy agreed collectively.

Thurston, whose church at 740 E. 77th St. is located near where a police officer was gunned down outside of his home last year, hopes Emanuel can use his mayoral pulpit and his connections in Washington to not only talk about programs but bring money to the churches and communities to help fund them.

Discussion of education and after school programs “is not new for many of our churches,” Thurston told the Defender. “They are open and they are ready to provide a safety net for our children. We believe that will cut down on a lot of the violence.”

But with social service programs – community ones and, specifically, ones focused on youth – in the crosshairs of state and federal cuts, faith leaders agreed that money is an issue.

“Every church in this city is struggling as it relates to finance. Income is down across the board in our churches,” Thurston pointed out. He said churches are still reaching out to help, despite the decreases in the offering plates but the pastor hopes money can be found to help more.

“It was implied, it wasn’t guaranteed” at the meeting that money would be made available for haven and other programs, especially for youth, Thurston said.

Last year, 435 people were victims of homicide in Chicago. The number included four police officers, one of who was shot with his own gun outside of a police station in the Englewood community. Violence and public safety heads Emanuel’s priority list of issues to tackle when he takes the helm of the city that boasts a police department Emanuel previously called “demoralized.”

Emanuel is hoping the clergy, some of whom lead churches in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, will have an “interest in helping our city turn its page and look to the future and deal with the issues that we face.”

Rev. Tyron told the Defender he was pleased, for the most part, with the discussion Emanuel brought to Wednesday’s meeting.

“I came away with a sincere mayor who is committed to hearing the voices from the faith community, who is committed to implementing some of the programs recommended by the faith community, serious about public education … public safety … programs to represent the entire community,” the pastor of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in the Morgan Park community said.

But just as in the crime-ridden and economically starved area near where his church is located, 1257 W. 111th St., Crider acknowledged, “we’ve got some real, real issues.”

Rev. Leonard Deville remembers when faith leaders were called upon to work directly with the Chicago Police Department to provide spiritual and other support. He told the Defender that at the meeting Emanuel was apprised of that now-defunct program.

“Preachers would come in and talk to police officials about police issues,” said Deville, pastor of Alpha Temple Missionary Baptist Church, 6701 S. Emerald. “It seemed to help.”

The program was a collaboration started by the late former police Supt. Fred Rice that utilized faith leaders to help forge relationships with communities, Thurston, who was among the participants in the program, explained. “Many of us as pastors were there to help integrate police into the communities but also provide some spiritual resolve in relation to many of the things that happened in our community.”

The preachers couldn’t pinpoint exactly what happened to the program and why it just ceased to exist. But Emanuel said he might be interested in reviving the program in some way, especially since he wants clergy to have a relationship with the police department on a “regular and interactive basis.”

“That is something I want to look into,” Emanuel said at the press conference.

This meeting and others Emanuel has held since his Feb. 22 win, as well as his assistance in several mayoral runoffs are part of the mayor-elect’s efforts to push his reform agenda.

“We now have a future to seize for the city and our residents to make sure Chicago is the most economically and educationally competitive city in the country” he said.

Faith leaders like Crider who say they’ve gotten handshake and lip service promises from politicians in the past remain cautious of the mayor-elect’s plans, even as they praise him for getting clergy around the table.

“Only time will tell. We’ve heard on many occasions from many politicians. But I felt good about today,” Crider said.

Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender

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