Religious activists’ work in troubled communities escapes media coverage

By Claire Fahey


imberly Lymore, associate minister at St. Sabina, said her place of worship on Chicago’s South Side is “ is not like any other Catholic Church in the archdiocese.”

“A lot of the times, we think about the community as a congregation now and we try to meet their needs in whatever way … because Auburn Gresham and Englewood has the highest unemployment rate in the area,” Lymore said, adding that some of the services include finding jobs and providing food and clothing.

At St. Clement Catholic Church in Lincoln Park, Maggie Hanley, the director of community outreach, said that “there is more work to be done” in communities on the South Side.

Religious institutions, like  Lymore’s and Hanley’s,  are working  to counter systemic issues of crime through a variety of services rarely noticed by mainstream media that frequently target the city for its perpetually high murder rate.

It isn’t only the mainstream media that have focused on Chicago, which recorded over 700 murders last year, mostly on the South and  West sides.  President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the city and even threatened federal invention to quell the violence.  Trump cited Chicago while addressing Congress in March. However, the president has yet to propose a strategy on how he plans to eliminate violence.

St. Sabina is one of the religious organizations on the South Side that works directly with the community to address issues such as poverty and joblessness.  Even though St. Sabina doesn’t garner the same media attention that Trump does,  the church offers social services such as an employment resource center and a youth summer program.

Tom Bosley is a program manager of St. Sabina’s “Strong Futures” employment program, which seeks to help young men, specifically those with criminal records, in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood find jobs through practicing interview techniques and preparing résumés. “ We really try to invest and place ourselves in the community and I think that really goes a long way,” Bosley said.  “I think that religion and service go hand in hand. I think that activism is the key and if the church doesn’t come out from behind the walls, we aren’t really doing our job.”

Bosley and his wife, Pam, the violence prevention manager at The ARK of St. Sabina, were forced to re-evaluate their commitments and decided to dive deeper into activism and service after their son was fatally shot 11 years ago on his way home from choir practice. Bosley said both he and his wife were involved in intense finance careers but after losing their son, they decided to re-evaluate their connection to the community and met Father Michael Pfleger, the head pastor of St. Sabina, during that process.

Pfleger has served at St. Sabina since 1981 and has become a notable figure not only on the South Side, but throughout the Chicago area. He has been a key figure in St. Sabina’s efforts to expand its social service programs and has been featured many times in the mainstream media, speaking out against violence on the South Side and the city’s neglect for this area.

Religious communities and churches, even beyond St. Sabina and Father Pfleger, have a steady history of working with disadvantaged groups. Professor Curtis J. Evans, an associate professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, said the success of the civil rights movement can be partially attributed to the support that  Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. received from a number of Catholic and Protestant ministers who marched alongside him on social issues.  However, he said,  in the current media, not a great deal of attention has been paid to the work of religious groups in social justice.

“One of the most significant differences in today’s social justice movements and the civil rights movement is that journalists, secular journalists in particular, tend to portray, the public presence of Christianity as almost exclusively a product of the Christian right or the just the evangelical right,” Evans said, who specializes in American religions and history of Christianity.  “I would argue that it is far more diverse than that.”

In fact, during a panel discussion on Chicago gun violence lead by The New York Times called “Chicago at a Crossroads,” not a single religious group or organization was mentioned despite the fact that one of the panelists, Arne Duncan, has partnered with St. Sabina in the past.

At St. Clement,  Hanley, the outreach director,  said she focuses on exposing her North Side community to different types of organizations. She has worked to organize a yearly “Service Day”  in which over 400 parishioners fan out across the city to  provide services such as cleaning,  painting, gardening. Hanley said that she tries to push members of the St. Clement, a relatively affluent parish, out of their comfort zones and into other parts of the city that they might not normally experience.

“Being exposed is important to making impactful change but also meeting and looking at the face of someone in a different situation as you and coming into relationship with that,” Hanley said. “Through relationships I have made through our bag lunch program and realizing that these people just have fallen on hard times, I came to understand these communities and people better. I think that is how you start bringing about change and having a personal connection with individuals.”

Kenneth Woodward, who served as the religion editor at Newsweek magazine for 38 years, said that churches have always been important vehicles for people to get involved and that political figures who are often in the mainstream media, like Pfleger, are not the only people enacting change.   He said that the people who often do the most work are rarely praised.

“People with a real passion for social justice are still probably few and far between,” said Woodward, an author of several books.  “One has to keep one’s eyes open to things other than the things that make headlines.”

Bosley said the media often stereotype many members of their communities, specifically the young black men.

“The first thing they asked me and my wife when our son was shot was about gangs and whether he was in a gang, which he wasn’t,” Bosley said. “He was a normal college student. But that is what people always focus on.  When that is all the media focuses on, people in the community and beyond start to become desensitized to the violence.

“I wish the media would shine a spotlight on all the different types of work we are doing.  That way our community would be able to become more aware and see the positive things and opportunities available.”

Hanley, like Bosley,  says she’d like to see media coverage of the important, life-changing work being done by social service agencies throughout the city, in an effort to enlighten the public.

“Greater media coverage of good being done could have the power to garner more volunteers and greater support,” Hanley said. “Many individuals I know desire to help, but don’t know where to start.”

Lymore says she has done partnerships with more affluent parishes in the past and loves the idea of getting more people who want to help involved.

“Activism based in some type of religion is there because we are called to be a voice for the voiceless and protect human dignity,” Lymore said. “If every church was doing this work, they could really help to quell violence in the inner cities.”


Photo at top: St. Sabina, a Catholic church in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the far South Side, is one of the religious organizations that works directly with the community to address issues such as poverty and joblessness. (Claire Fahey/MEDILL)