At 2:21 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 20, a bus pulled away from Bethel New Life in West Garfield bound for Washington. D.C. The Spirit Tours motor coach crossed four states on its 704-mile, 13-hour drive to Capitol Hill, where its passengers, the Coalition to Save Community Banking, got a hard-won seat at the national table.

“Lord, give us open minds and open ears,” said Mildred Wiley, senior director of community services at Bethel New Life and den mother for the bus ride.

Empowerment was the word for the historic trip to D.C. by members of the grassroots group that for weeks has been demanding – and this month got – a Congressional hearing into the takeover of Park National Bank.

“This was civil rights stuff from 40 years ago – that we have a voice, that we can make a difference,” says Jacqueline Reed, founder of Westside Health Authority.

“We’re not the big-money groups with special interests. We don’t have lobbyists framing our arguments. We’re not unions throwing clout around. This is just ordinary people who had a relationship with a little bank and with a banker who would stick his neck out for them. Ordinary people who said, ‘We’ve had enough.'”

Reed, whose father is sick and whose husband is on dialysis, took a plane to D.C. But members of her staff went on the bus, along with the neighborhood representatives – citizen leaders – they work with. Westside Health Authority had the most people on the bus.

Groups from three other West Side institutions filled Spirit Tours motor coach #787: Bethel New Life, the community complex in West Garfield from where the bus departed and whose CEO, Steve McCullough, delivered the coalition’s testimony at the hearing; South Austin Coalition Community Council, the nonprofit led by Bob Vondrasek and Elce Redmond; and Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, the congregation of Rev. Marshall Hatch, another member of the coalition.

At a meeting for the bus ride the night before at Friendship Baptist Church, it was Hatch who said, “You can’t just do anything to the West Side. We fight back.”

There was no hotel for the group that got to D.C. just after 4 a.m. Eastern on the day of the hearing. Their only stop before Capitol Hill was the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage, a nonprofit in the Shaw neighborhood of D.C. whose director, Mary Filardo, is someone Wiley and coalition member Jackie Leavy know from work in education reform.

Leavy, an Oak Parker, flew in the day before to make arrangements for the bus’s arrival. The Marshall Center was where folks had the chance to get out and stretch, wash their faces, charge their phones, brush their teeth and spiff up for the halls of Congress.

Departure for the return trip was mid-afternoon Thursday, less than 24 hours after the bus had left Chicago. Arrival at Bethel was 3:11 a.m. Friday morning.

-Helen Karakoudas