In our introduction to “West Side Stories” the Chicago Defender took a look at people in the communities of Austin, East and West Garfield Park, and North Lawndale. The Black migrants who came from the South were not only seeking to escape the racist Jim Crow laws, but better opportunities in employment, housing and to praise their God. They each shared their recollection of what daily life looked like to them, what their communities looked like, and the institutions that served their families.
The picture that emerged was that of a close-knit family structure that extended beyond the immediate family into the schools, community groups and especially the churches. The church always played a major role in the heart of the Black community from its leadership role in the civil rights movement to being the center of all family activities. To some, it has always been a pillar of strength and will continue to be.
To others, it too has definitely been transformed by the convergence of government policy, disinvestment, and so-called “social progress.” However, you couldn’t tell by the sheer number of churches that appear on just about every commercial strip on the West Side. In total, there are over 600 churches listed in the city’s database for just seven ZIP codes – (60608, —12, -23, -24, -35, -44, -51 – representing the aforementioned communities.
Unity in the Community
Rev. Dr. Marshall E. Hatch and first lady Priscilla Hatch — New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, West Garfield Park — detail the early church’s formation.
Going back in time, he says, “[When] my father came from Mississippi in 1935, the South Side was dense. Some Blacks settled in the public housing developments on the Near West Side, in the ’30s-’40s, eventually moving westward into East and West Garfield and eventually Austin.
“The people built churches that were “southern-flavored” culturally similar to the ones back home – mostly Baptist, then COGIC – and they were often named after a hometown. New arrivals simply gravitated toward the familiar – their family, relatives, and friends.
“You got seven, eight or nine major families. The congregations then were made up of 200 to 300 people at its height and made up of generations that came from the same hometowns. Grenada, Angola, and Indianola, Mississippi. That’s basically how the churches grew.”
The congregation and people spent a lot of time together, he continued. Revivals and anniversaries could easily last five days in a row. There was mutual support. “People really spent a lot of meaningful time together. The most important relationships were centered around the church.” This, in turn, he says is what contributed to the sense of strong Black families and communities – the fellowship.
“Practical gifts added to the building of the community. Whatever you had, you gave to the church to help build the community. They built it with their hands,” Rev. Hatch states.
West Fulton Boulevard resident Bobby Pierce remembers the close ties between the church and the family, stating that during the second wave of Blacks migrating to the West Side, “People coming to Chicago got to have a place to stay,” he says. Through the churches they got you a place to stay. But you got to clean it up,” meaning that the church had places for people to stay but they may have needed some work.
“This part of town – W. Fulton Boulevard leading up to the Garfield Park Conservatory – was called, Lil’ Mississippi,” he stated. “Everybody knew each other.”
Women, through the Ministry of Helps, “provided a lot of the fundraising, organizing and administration. And you can’t have a church community without food.
Food was a big cultural piece – celebrations, fellowship, long services, visiting churches – there were rotating groups of women that were in charge of feeding the community,” says first lady Priscilla Hatch. Dinner could include collard greens, mustard and turnip greens, golden fried chicken, pot roast, baked macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, cabbage, spaghetti, fried catfish, cornbread, and desserts.
“Everybody came to the church to eat back then. It wasn’t about who could afford to pay,” she said.
Doctrine of the Believers
“It was fundamental Christianity – Orthodox Christianity in that it was Jesus-centered. It was a sense of Jesus identifying with the people that suffer and who are oppressed. It was very much like Black theology without calling it that. God being with the people throughout their struggle,” continued Pastor Hatch.
The people were barely literate but they had a lot of respect for the Bible. “Everybody had gifts,” he admits, “but the illiteracy rate caused people to spend more time in prayer instead of reading the word,” he says. And this in his opinion is what gave the early Black Church its power and dominion in the spiritual realm.
As Black people became more literate and educated, they spent less time praying and more time reading and interpreting the word, he said.
With the early church as the centerpiece of the Black family, West Siders appeared to be progressing until about the late ’60s, early ’70s says Bishop Derrick M. Fitzpatrick of Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church, North Lawndale.
Founded by Rev. James Marcellus Stone, a colleague of Dr. King, the church – which just received landmark status this year – played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. During this time it became known as the Chicago Freedom Movement, which challenged housing discrimination and segregation, while championing civil rights for Blacks – the year, 1966.
Ironically, according to Bishop Fitzpatrick, civil rights, and other social forces brought blessings as well as unintended consequences to the Black community. Social forces like the Vietnam War, he states, which sent a lot of our young, strong Black men off to war. “The women were still back at home. They would give the [Black] women the jobs that the men had held before they went off to war.”
When the Black men came back, a lot of them couldn’t find jobs and didn’t get the support like their white counterparts to re-integrate back into society, he says. “It was encouraged that the women should be working.” Bishop Fitzpatrick quotes the popular Enjoli commercial “I can bring home the bacon. Fry it up in the pan. And never ever let you forget you’re a man. Cause I’m a woman. Enjoli.”
“Without meaning to sound sexist,” he prefaces his next statement, “Surely, this was a breakdown in what the Christian church belief was. The belief for the family in the Church was the male was the provider. The male was the one to take care of the family. What the church saw happening in our community was the women had to continue working because they weren’t giving Black men jobs returning from the war.”
Blacks that took advantage of the civil rights movement that got degrees and higher-paying jobs eventually left the community, taking their purchasing power with them, he said, leaving behind a poorer community.
Other forces like the government’s attempt to regulate the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program enacted “man in the house” rules as a response to critics who complained about Blacks having illegitimate children and not taking personal responsibility – essentially terminating welfare benefits when a man lived in the home.
This policy, according to the Bishop, was questionable. “When you look at the policy: Why would that policy be put into effect?” he asks “The family is stronger when you have the male and female.” This created irreconcilable stress upon the Black family structure and soon surfaced in the congregations.
In turn, Black families and communities have suffered, he continues. “The impact in Lawndale is tremendous to this day because 70 percent of Black households are headed by females with the average household income starting at $25,000.” This makes no sense, the demise of the family, and he laments how the social stresses have impacted the relationship between the family, the church and what it can do for the community.
Samantha Bates, who spent many years active in the church tithing, says she started noticing changes around the beginning of 2000. “The churches are supposed to be like social services in our communities. They were expected to be there when you need them the most. To help and support the family. When you need somebody to talk to. To help pay your rent, your light or gas bill. To help out with food,” she says, recalling a time when the church was genuinely involved in helping the community and running food pantries.
These days the churches are about “cliques” and “me me me,” she asserts. She shares firsthand knowledge about the inner operations when she left the church and started her own 501 C(3). She discovered that some church food pantries were, in fact, keeping the best food for themselves.
Case in point: “At the Greater Chicago Food Pantry (GCFP) you [a church] can buy 100 pounds of meat for $7. They [GCFP] give out produce, bread and fruit and stuff like that to feed the people. When the people get the food baskets, they weren’t getting what the church had been given to give out,” she says. “They were getting what was left.”
She says that when she operated a food pantry, she gave out everything that was given to her. “If we got meat, we gave that out. If it was eggs, we gave that out. Cheese, butter. A lot of the churches weren’t doing that. And some, not at all.”
Bates clearly sees the link between the church functioning in its rightful place and the demise happening in the community. “A lot of that played a big part in the community the way it is now. And the fact that a lot of people don’t get subsidies anymore. Just food stamps. But food stamps don’t pay rent. They don’t pay a gas bill, light bill, none of that stuff.” The state is cutting child care and people can’t go to work now, she says.
“That’s why you have people out here on the streets selling drugs. Doing God knows what to survive.”
According to retired Bishop Steve Braxton, his church of fellowship “Lawndale Community Church is unusual in that it was founded by a non-pastor and five people who were not church-goers. They were drug addicts and dealers and the coach from Farragut High School started the church.”
“The church started a Bible study in a broken-down Salvation Army thrift store 35 years ago,” and the group just continued to expand, says Bishop Braxton. “What they have done, and this is the reason I settled in the community. They go to the people. They sit with the people. They listen to the people.” Bishop Braxton says this is the model the church follows. They survey the needs of the people and they create programming around it.
Despite the many economic and spiritual challenges that West Side families have faced – the two forces are still holding hands. Rev. Hatch, who was appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner to Chicago State’s Board of Trustees in 2015, appears to sum it all up. Despite the challenges and hardships, “We were always taught in the Black community that education was one of the main things that no one can ever take away from you.” He believes that education plays a major part in the survival of the Black family, our institutions, and the future.
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