A West Side church's radical inclusion

New Mt. Pilgrim's Maafa program restores at-risk men through cultural restoration and community

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By Bonni McKeown

Marshall Hatch Jr. — the son of Marshall Hatch Sr., the pastor of New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church at 4301 W. Washington — said he tried to avoid being a minister for a while, but then came a mission he could not ignore: Maafa. 

The Kiswahili word means great disaster or great calamity — one that takes years for recovery. It's applied to American slavery. The conditions for today's young Black men represent "a cultural death they were born into," Hatch said.  

Maafa is a nine-month program for at-risk black men, ages 18 to 26. In the program, formerly incarcerated men who have turned their lives around serve as life coaches for their younger colleagues. Some life coaches are deacons in the church. 

"We wanted the program to be unique — a faith based residential institute," said Hatch, adding that about half of Maafa participants are classified as homeless. The young men room in several church-owned houses. 

"We wanted to give them a secure home place while they learn. I believe in Maslow's hierarchy of needs — take care of people's basic needs first and this allows them to move on toward self-actualization."   

Dwight McKee, who took part in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, helped to start the Maafa program, now in its third year. 

The young men hear history-rich talks from McKee and take group trips to African American history museums in Alabama, Memphis and Washington DC.  They learn about African American identity, financial literary and reading literacy. They also train on the job in construction and landscaping.

"This program opened my eyes to lot of things in the community," said Robert Hall, a member of Maafa who is earning his certification to go into construction work. "I'm getting more involved." 

New Mt. Pilgrim has a history of engaging young men who feel alienated by the social and economic conditions around them. In 2013, several deacons started a Bible/basketball program, creating a safe haven during a violent time of the week — Friday nights. Before opening the gym, deacons talk with youth about a passage of scripture and how it relates to daily life. The young men, in turn, talk about their experiences.

The first cohort of Maafa young men came from this basketball ministry. Each group recruited the next year's cohort. 

"We are intentional about getting the right guys," Hatch Jr. said. 

Hatch explained that of the 26 graduates from Maafa (12 in the first cohort, 14 in the second), 82 percent are currently employed, 93 percent of those previously in the criminal justice system have avoided recidivism and all of them earned their GEDs. Many alumni come back and help recruit others. Half of the alumni are now baptized church members. 

"When you're baptized into a community like this, you are reconnected to the African American extended family," Hatch Jr. said. "The congregation sees them as their sons and nephews, and the young men don't feel judged for how they look and speak."

In the Maafa program, the community responds in a healthy way to oppression, Hatch said.  

"We should be radically inclusive," he said. "The key is spiritual. Redemption has to do with physical, spiritual and mental health. Our mission statement says we cannot redeem our own family until we redeem ourselves. If I'm not connected with the source of all being, I can't deal with my pain and it comes out as rage. Connection with the divine brings inner peace."

Hatch Jr. said that African Americans overcome oppression through the arts. At New Mt. Pilgrim, a 21st century stained-glass Maafa window depicts Christ in chains, his body shown as a slave ship.  Christ is breaking through and trying to rise from a blue-gray tomb.  A second rose window honors victims of violence.

New Mt. Pilgrim's stately building is the former St. Mel-Holy Ghost Roman Catholic Church.

The Botti studio, formerly of Evanston and now based in LaPorte, Ind., has been re-doing the stained glass windows. When a Maafa graduate got interested in the craft and helped restore a window, the Botti's then hired him.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

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