West Side Pastors Emerge as Political Force | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

West Side Pastors Emerge as Political Force

When it comes to African American political influence, Chicago's West Side has long played second fiddle to the South Side. A group of West Side pastors is trying to change that. They're tackling issues ranging from police conduct to sexual assault. They're taking shots at Mayor Richard Daley's administration. And they're trying to propel one of their own into the nation's Congress. We report from our West Side bureau.

Dozens of families on Chicago's West Side have lost a child to violence in recent years. But it's a rare moment when the police department acknowledges misconduct in an investigation and the police superintendent agrees to meet with the family about it.

POPE: Let's pray. Father in heaven, we give you thanks and praise...

Rev. David Pope opens a press conference in the Austin neighborhood. He's in the backyard of a family whose child disappeared last year. The police-misconduct finding came after months of campaigning by some 40 ministers who call themselves the Leaders Network.

WILLIS: The group has been more consistent around issues of criminal justice than any other group that I can think of in Chicago.

That's long-time Chicago civil-rights attorney Standish Willis. The Leaders Network takes action on other fronts, from hospital cuts and youth violence, from foreclosures to school-funding inequity.

ACREE: Because, in this town, who else is going to speak up?

Rev. Ira Acree, the pastor of an Austin church called Greater St. John, helped form the Leaders Network.

ACREE: What group is independent of the mayor and will stand up and say, ‘This is wrong'? What group would really do that other than the Leaders Network today?

DAVIS: They do have political power.

Veteran West Sider Danny Davis is their congressman.

DAVIS: Some of the other groups just don't do the same level of activism.

But the ministers are not always in tune with area aldermen. The 28th Ward's Ed Smith points out that the Leaders Network isn't the only group fighting for the West Side. And Smith says the police superintendent would not have sat down with the missing child's family if not for Mayor Daley.

SMITH: These are fine pastors, but the pressure did not really come from the community.

That's not how Reverend Acree sees it. Acree says Daley and other officials have long neglected neighborhoods like Austin, West Garfield Park and North Lawndale.

ACREE: When they needed black leadership, they would go south. And most African American West Side clergy were walking around with a chip on their shoulder, like we're being taken for granted.

Acree says Leaders Network members are free to speak out against the Daley administration because they don't serve on boards or commissions at his pleasure.

ACREE: We're not on the mayor's payroll.

The Leaders Network draws its support, rather, from some of the West Side's largest congregations. Acree's sermons bring hundreds of worshipers to their feet.

ACREE: ...and see that God is still a miracle worker....

One Sunday this spring, Leaders Network members took the unusual step of synchronizing their sermons. Their topics? The taboo subjects of rape and child molestation.

Now the pastors are trying to channel the faithful into an electoral campaign. Leaders Network co-founder Rev. Marshall Hatch is running for the Congressional seat Danny Davis says he's vacating. Hatch's five opponents include a few who've proven they can win elections. That hasn't stopped Hatch from lining up some key support on the city's West and South sides, including the Woodlawn Organization's Rev. Leon Finney, Jr.

FINNEY: We will hit the streets with petitions. We will raise money. We know how to win.

Leaders Network members say they'd like to join forces with activists of other races and faiths.

MORRIS: The proof will be in the pudding.

Rev. Calvin Morris directs a Chicago social-justice group called the Community Renewal Society.

MORRIS: If 95 percent of the people there are black ministers--there's nothing wrong with having that base but, if the idea is to branch out, you need to be able to see it.

Morris says Leaders Network members remind him of Rev. Jesse Jackson.

MORRIS: Because Jesse's been from one issue to the other. The question it raises is what kind of apparatus is in place for there to be follow-through around all these issues.

HATCH: ...We can rebuild a community! We can rebuild the 7th Congressional district!...

Reverend Hatch fires up ministers at a West Madison Street fundraiser for his campaign.

The Leaders Network may not be ready to forge a broad alliance like the one that carried Harold Washington into the mayor's office 26 years ago. But the pastors are flexing some independent political muscle.

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