The largest crowd yet filled the pews at Stone Temple Baptist Church in North Lawndale for the sixth annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Commemoration. Organized by JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council, Stone Temple, and the North Lawndale Historical & Cultural Society, the event focused on restorative justice and its intersection with Dr. King's legacy.
"Dr. King would be uncomfortable with the rise of racism, sexism, antisemitism today," said Bishop Derrick M. Fitzpatrick, who pastors the historic church where King once preached. "It is time to be uncomfortable and stand up for what is right!"
From Sen. Dick Durbin to Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx to keynote speaker Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans and others, the speakers noted that change for the better requires a lot of work and can be difficult when facing initial opposition. They also acknowledged the charged climate of political and social discourse in America today: increased hate crimes against both African-American and Jewish communities, and the need for greater engagement with each other.
"In the year 2020, it feels ever more vital to continue to nurture our partnership," said Andrew S. Hochberg, chair of JUF's Board. "At a time when white supremacy threatens our communities and tensions between various communities remain high, we recommit to Dr. King's vision for a Beloved Community."
In her invocation, Rabbi Megan GoldMarche of Silverstein Base Hillel: Lincoln Park echoed the theme of discomfort with the world today.
"We are not living in the world that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about, a world where all people can live safely and freely regardless of the color of their skin or their economic situation," she said. "In fact, in some ways this world feels farther from that world he envisioned than at any other point in my lifetime."
Others acknowledged several reforms that are helping, as King expressed it, bend the "arc of the moral universe" toward justice, such as bail reform, juvenile detention reform, and other restorative justice projects
State's Attorney Foxx noted that King was very unpopular when he died: Some believed he wasn't militant enough, others criticized his desire to change the status quo. Everyone must be cognizant of this history, Foxx said. King's vision for an equitable justice system guides her work today, she said, touting reforms her office has been part of that help the perpetrator not only repair the harm done to the victim, but also reintegrate into a community.
"The work of restorative justice makes all of us better," Foxx said. "We all grow when those who have the least are allowed to grow."
Judge Evans' team established Cook County's first Restorative Justice Community Court in North Lawndale in 2017. Its judge and associates work with individuals who are 18 to 26, are charged with a nonviolent felony or misdemeanor, live in North Lawndale, have a nonviolent criminal history, and accept responsibility for the harm caused. The victim of the crime also must agree to participate so that repair of harm is possible.
The court has been so successful that others are opening in Englewood and on the North Side, where the court will serve Avondale, Portage Park and Logan Square.
"The arc of justice is left to us. If all we do is lock him up, we won't ever find out why the crime happened," Evans said. "Restorative justice means that a person may come back to the community not as a convicted felon, but as a contributing member of the community."
Evans also recounted childhood experiences with white supremacy while growing up in Hot Springs, Ark.
"Our country is still struggling against discrimination," Evans said. "That's why it's so important to see that blacks and whites together are trying to make certain that something good can continue to come out."
JUF Board Member and recent alum of the National Young Leadership Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America Jen Leemis reflected on a recent experience visiting civil rights sites in Alabama and Georgia. The trip, she said, led to a personal re-commitment to work toward justice and equity.
"We thought we were traveling to learn about a historical period; instead, our eyes were opened to ongoing injustice simply dressed up in a different costume," Leemis said.
Many in the Jewish community also marked the day with service: Prior to the commemoration, volunteers from the Jewish and African-American communities prepared a breakfast organized by JUF's Tikkun Olam Volunteers (TOV) for about 80 people from both communities.
In addition, volunteers from throughout the Jewish community joined other TOV and Repair the World-Chicago efforts. Young professional organizations, including JUF's Young Leadership Division and JUF's Next Gen Initiatives co-hosted special Civic Shabbat dinners with OneTable and Repair the World-Chicago, while JUF's Young Families Department organized service learning with Cradles to Crayons and Ronald McDonald House's Care Mobiles.
Jane Charney is Director of Domestic Affairs at JUF's JCRC.