We smelled smoke as soon as we entered the church. It was the fall of 1968, and the fourth Sunday that we went to worship at First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, located in the middle of the south side community of Woodlawn, a few blocks from our apartment. The usher said that someone had firebombed the church office, and many of the records had been removed before the fire, so it was clearly an effort to cover the theft of the records; more than likely it was the Red Squad, a unit of the Chicago Police Department. Fortunately, the fire had been reported and firemen had arrived to put out the fire before a lot of damage occurred.
The Chicago Police had entered the church a few months before and confiscated the weapons that the church had collected from members of the area gang that had taken the name “BlackPStone Nation” as part of an agreement to trade weapons for jobs and opportunities. The “P” in their name supposedly meant “Peace,” but not everyone was persuaded of their intent. The church had objected to the way the police had acted, but not the idea of removing weapons, because that was their plan all along, and they hadn’t decided what how they were going to eliminate the weapons in their possession.
Whatever the church had tried in order to create peace in the neighborhood and that necessarily involved working with the neighborhood gangs, had come under suspicion by the police and some of the political leaders of the city, although other leaders had encouraged their efforts; the church and its pastor, John Fry, kept trying. If the gang leaders ever had good intentions, in cooperating with the jobs and opportunities programs, some of which were funded through the federal government, they eventually gave up when the church came under relentless criticism and was subjected to warrantless searches and fire-bombings.
So we worshipped, prayed for peace in the neighborhood and jobs for the young people, and listened to amazing and prophetic preaching from Pastor Fry. Fry published some books about the issues, notably, Fire and Blackstone, testified before a Congressional Committee, and lectured around the country on efforts to work with one’s neighborhood.
Months later Jan got a job as interviewer with the Illinois State Employment Service on 63rd Street, and she tried for a year to combat the hurdles of inadequate resources, job discrimination, and miles to go within the city environment for people to get to job interviews, much less to land a job that paid enough to keep making the trip. By that time, I was working on projects that took us to other churches within the city. Pastor Fry moved on. Efforts to establish peaceful work and education programs for the young adults of the South Side largely fell apart. Gang leaders and many of its members eventually landed in a cycle of prison, release, and more prison, until they either died or retired. Last time I checked, First Presbyterian was still there, smaller and older, trying to serve the neighborhood, gangs are still operating in the neighborhood, and politicians still are covering their….