The Bronzeville community on the near South Side of Chicago has a rich and cultural history among people of color. It was the hub of thousands of Black southerners mi- grating from Down South to find better opportunities in jobs, education and living conditions.
At times, many found themselves in parallel situations to what they left behind. But the one thing that rarely changed in their lives was the church.
At one point, Bronzeville was considered to have the most African-American churches within a small radius in the country. Some of these churches still stand today, but with a new generation of faith leaders taking on similar challenges that their predecessors faced decades ago.
Pastor Chris Harris has stepped up to the plate to face many of these challenges within the community. As the pastor of Bright Star Church, located at 735 East 44th Street, Harris grew up in the Dearborn Homes and attended Carter G. Woodson Elementary School.
Since Brightstar Church was across the street from where he lived, the church became his second home as a young kid. It was there that he found two loves – his love for Christ and his love for music.
He says, “My pastor, Dr. James Stovall, who is the founder of the church, put me in the adult choir at eight years old. I ended up being the Minister of Music at 14 years old. I spent 16 years in the church now and have experienced tremendous growth.”
Recognizing a void of certain social services in the community was also the catalyst of problems that plague low-income residents, including unemployment and other forms of assistance. Soon after he became the pastor, Harris started a 5013c organization called Brightstar Community Outreach.
“We found out after worshipping, service should begin to our community. I’m of the mindset that if all of us are taking care of foreign countries, then when do we start ministering to the Black community.
“While Bronzeville has a rich history and heritage, it’s an underserved community. We started prayer around the school, which is called Pat’s Program. They took prayer out of the school, so we said, ‘We’ll put prayer ‘around’ the school.”
Bright Star Community Out- reach has been serving community families for eight years now – they serve hundreds of families every month. Just recently, Harris took on another intense endeavor with the opening of the Bronzeville Dream Center (BDC).
The project began with a trip to Israel. The BDC, inspired by NATAL in Israel, is dedicated to serving Chicago with counseling and other social services aimed at minimizing negative factors that cause violence and increase protective influences that yield positive outcomes.
Growing up in the Dearborn Homes, Harris understands that he was one of the few young Black males that took a different turn in life, whereas some of his neighbors and friends did not.
The Dream Center
The decay of violence, gangs and drugs contributed to lives lost or finding themselves in the jail system. The Bronzeville Dream Center’s mission is to help prevent the same cycle through counseling, parenting, mentorship, workforce development and advocacy.
Its unique model will utilize faith leaders as post-trauma counselors and use community surveys as the basis for services that directly correspond to the unique needs of constituents. Its end-to-end approach offers a replicable, evidenced-based template for risk assessment and program evaluation.
“We’re excited about the work we’ve been able to do,” says Harris. “We’ve been around since 2008, but between 2011 and 2015, we have served over 1,100 students with our after school programming.
“Over 840 families are served in our family advocacy center through the Department of Child and Family Services. That’s where we go into the home and decrease risk factors and increase protective factors.
We believe that if we make sure that we proactively deal with what the dysfunctions are in the household, we can keep the families and the children out of the system,” he said.
As Chairman of the Bronzeville Community Action Council, Pastor Harris works with other community stakeholders, such as other faith leaders, principals, public officials, parents and business owners on how to make schools better in Bronzeville.
An important initiative that he has taken on is the reinstatement of the Black National Anthem into elementary schools. Harris said, “When I was a kid, that’s what we grew up doing. What alarmed me most, especially when it comes to cultural relevance in school and our heritage, through music that’s a song that can cause kids to wonder, ‘If we have a Black National Anthem, what else is there that I should know?’
“Here’s what interesting to me,” Harris continued. “How many adults and how many kids right now don’t even know there is a Black National Anthem?”
The escalation of violence has continued to be the focus with many faith leaders who continue to deal with the daily battle by meeting with community groups, police commanders, and political leaders beyond the marches. Harris says it goes far beyond a news soundbite and protest.
“When you think about Black Lives Matter, the first thing folks talk about is police brutality, but Black lives must also matter to Black people,” he says. “If we’re only going to march and protest and get upset when White people kill Black people, but we don’t say anything when Black people kill Black people, then I’m not really convinced that Black people matter to us.”
Under his leadership the young pastor, husband and father has achieved a great deal and recognizes his mentor and founding pastor, Dr. James Stovall.
“He fought for the Bronzeville community for many years – 40 years of being a pastor and I saw his work in the community. I had to pick up that mantle and carry on that legacy,” Harris says.