"It is easier to build a strong child than to repair a broken man." - Frederick Douglass

St. Agatha’s 125 Years of Ministering Peace to Soul, Mind and Body in the Heart of North Lawndale

St. Agatha's

For 125 years, St. Agatha Catholic Church has been an anchor in the North Lawndale community, providing ministry and a social center for various ethnic groups over those years, and over the past 60 + years to a culturally and spiritually rich African-American community. From 1895 to 2015, St. Agatha ran a school that educated thousands of area children. Many people in the community will talk about the youth center and social center with the roller skating rink. We have run an after-school and a summer program called, St. Agatha Family Empowerment (S.A.F.E) for the last 40 years.

Since the closing of our school, the parish is focusing use of our school building on housing and coordinating a number of family strengthening initiatives. These are the programs we currently have in place to support community building, violence prevention and, particularly, family fortification:

1) For six years we have hosted parent support classes, in conjunction with Parents for Non-Violence (P4NV) (http://parenting4nonviolence.org/), which we call “From Stressed to Blessed,” which offers 12 hours of interactive classes helping parents to reflect on their style of communication with their children, offering different skills for increasing communication with their children, affirming and passing on positive values, and engaging in effective non-violent methods of discipline as opposed to the often verbally and physically hurtful punishment methods often used. Over these six years we have impacted over 300 families with this program and we continue to do classes every other month.

2) We have opened a new computer tech lab for the community – the Winslow Redmond Technology Center – named after parishioner Wynona Redmond’s twin brother who died in 2007. The Center houses 20 computer stations and state-of-the-art internet interactive screens. Our plan is to offer a regular schedule of classes five days a week with open time for general community use. Classes will be offered for every age level. We currently run our News School program from the Tech Center and are about to partner with the Techgyrls program for Saturday classes for girls and teens.

3) In the summer of 2016, we piloted a citizen journalist program for teenagers in the community, which we call The St. Agatha News School (https://www.facebook.com/TheNewsSchool/) where we hold a series of after-school classes and a summer program for teens interested in developing their writing and journalism skills. The course is comprehensive in its scope and taught by a professional journalist associated with an online newspaper called Guardian Liberty Voice. By the end of each 8-week class, students have learned research, fact-checking, interviewing, ethics, and story writing skills to be able to craft a news story. Each class creates a community newspaper at the end of each 8- week session. They receive a certificate of completion from St. Agatha and Guardian Liberty Voice, and a press pass in order to continue to attend press events and write stories for GLV. Since its inception, we have graduated 25 students out of three classes, with another 25 who finished but did not fulfill the requirements for formal graduation.

4) We partner with M.U.S.I.C., Inc. (https://www.musicincchicago.org/) a nonprofit that offers free lessons in stringed instruments, particularly violin and cello, to lower grade students. This year, 40 students from the SAFE After-School Program will participate in this program on-site at St. Agatha, which requires academic excellence and parent involvement.

5) We have established a Restorative Justice Peace Hub, including a dedicated peace and conflict resolution room to hold talking circles and conflict resolution circles for residents and parishioners.

6) With the Hub we have hired two men, who had previously served time, and have turned their lives around and are now engaging and interrupting some of the violence in the community; bringing youth together in conversations on topics that are of interest to them where they feel a freedom to offer their insights and ideas as well as their struggles and challenges; they also hold circles specifically for parents to build parent support groups; and they hold family circles to help parents and kids learn better ways of communicating at home.   They also interact weekly with inmates at Cook County Jail teaching them parenting skills and helping them see that there are alternatives to get on the right path once they are released. They have been able to help many of these men get jobs and other supports upon release. They are also working with parents of juveniles currently in juvenile detention. And there is more that they do.

7) St. Agatha has been instrumental in helping the new Restorative Justice Community Court take shape, which opened on August 31, 2017. I have had the privilege of being one of seven community members who have served on the RJCC Steering Committee, along with seven system partners, as we have designed and are implementing this ground-breaking pilot for the city and the nation. Two of our parishioners volunteer their time as community liaisons in the court.

8) We continue to operate two Food Pantries, as well as our Christmas outreach, which engages over 300 families in community in a full Saturday of relationship building and parent enrichment each year, and helps with child/parent needs at Christmas time.

9) Our parishioners organized a grassroots effort to create a Community Run Mental Health  Facility (allowed by state law) (http://cct.org/2016/11/for-chicago-voters-supporting-mental-health-care-builds-common-ground/) on the westside to fit the unmet needs of other service providers in the area. The group, working with area residents and members of St. Malachy +Precious Blood, Old St. Pat’s, and the UIC Newman Club, procured 10,000 signatures (we only needed 2,300) to get it on the ballot in 2016, and it passed by 87 percent. A Governing Commission, led by a St. Agatha parishioner, is now working on implementation to open in late 2018.

10) We currently provide space for North Lawndale Employment Network to implement the READI (http://cjc.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/READI-Chicago-RFI-FINAL-Outreach-and-TJ.pdf) program in North Lawndale. The program works with very high-risk young men in the community on behavior modification and job readiness. Our Men’s Group is partnering to provide mentorship to the young men in the program.

11) St. Agatha has been a congregational member of the Community Renewal Society (http://www.communityrenewalsociety.org) for 8 years, working with 80+ urban and suburban parishes to advocate for criminal justice reform, restorative justice funding, support for returning citizens, and police accountability and reform. Fr. Larry serves on the Policy Committee for CRS. (http://www.communityrenewalsociety.org/vision-restorative-justice)

As a faith community that closes our services every Sunday by collectively proclaiming, “Be Church after Church! Thanks Be to God!” We continue to seek the wisdom of the Spirit as to how to best serve our faith community and the people of North Lawndale.

By Father Larry Dowling

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