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Hunger Beat

In their words: Black leaders on food and racial justice

Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protests have filled the streets of Chicago and in cities across the nation.

At the Greater Chicago Food Depository this week, we have felt the pain and sadness of what feels like a recurring nightmare, the seemingly endless scourge of racism and the ceaseless killings of Black Americans.

At the Food Depository, we know that Black lives matter. As Chicago’s food bank, we’re committed to ending hunger and its root causes, which include racial inequity.

We interviewed four Black leaders who partner with the Food Depository for their thoughts on the recent civic unrest and, more generally, the intersection of food and racial justice. Their perspectives are below, edited for length – not clarity. Their words are plenty clear enough.

The Rev. Sandra Gillespie

For more than 14 years, Pastor Sandy has fed countless people from her food pantry at the Chosen Tabernacle Church in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

Pastor Sandy Gillespie poses for a portrait

(Photo by Joshua Lott for Greater Chicago Food Depository)

We’re all angry about what happened to George Floyd. That’s a given. As a wife of a Black man, and a mother of Black men, and a grandmother of a Black man, I’m appalled.

It’s so interesting that the media now has picked up on the fact that we have to give our Black male children “the speech.”

The speech about how to conduct themselves. How to just lift your hands and not say anything – even though you’re emasculated, even though you’re humiliated. Even though all of those things are happening, I want you to come home. So swallow your pride and just come home. We have to teach our children that.

I always tell the story about me and my grandson, driving along. He was like 12. And we saw the sheriff’s police about to serve someone. And I said, ‘Mmm’ – I just kind of said it out loud – ‘Mmm, glad it’s not me.’ And he said, ‘Nana, why would it be you? You haven’t done anything wrong.’

I called my son that day and said it’s time to give him the talk.

We know that racial injustice and inequality – it’s a part of our lives. It’s been going on for 200 years. I am a firm believer in the protests. I support them.

But this other stuff? This other stuff by opportunists is just the most ridiculous thing. No forethought, no sense of community, no sense of unity. I am just appalled. I’m angry, I’m disgusted, I’m embarrassed, I’m disheartened as I’m driving through my community now. Everything’s boarded up. My favorite store at 95th and Jeffrey was burnt to the ground yesterday. I’m seeing a lot of board-ups. All of the Walgreens are closed. It breaks my heart because I know a lot of seniors, especially the first of the month, they were waiting for their checks to come, so they could go get their medications. Where are they going?

But I am seeing people cleaning up. I’m seeing a sense of unity. We’re all feeling the same. It’s just a small number of opportunists who have destroyed our city, but they have not destroyed our hope. I want to make sure you capture that. We are angry, but we are still hopeful. We are still believing that God is going to rain down justice. It is enough. It is just enough.

It has made me even more determined. It has made me even more tenacious to make sure that I’m on my post, doing what I can to make a difference. Now we have the bigger contingent of people who are hungry and who are trying to feed their kids. So I’m just more determined. I’ve talked to some of my volunteers and they feel the same way. We’re ready. Let’s do this.

When you think about food justice and racial injustice, all those things tie together. The anger. The frustration. The inequalities. They all tie together.

For this specific incident, we want all four of those officers in Minneapolis to be charged and to go to prison. That’s what we want. But where’s the next George Floyd? Where’s the next Ahmaud Arbery? What’s next? We’ve got to attack it at the root. And we have to talk about the leadership of our country.

Food injustice is just a natural component of the whole inequality of our society. … As I said, we’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. It’s just enough.

I believe that justice will be served. I believe that change is going to come to America. I have to maintain that sense of hope.

The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III

Pastor Moss leads the historic Trinity United Church in Washington Heights, which recently partnered with the Food Depository on emergency food distributions that fed thousands of families.

The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss

(Photo courtesy Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III)

First, there are two viruses that we are dealing with as a nation. There’s COVID-19 and there is COVID-1619. COVID-1619 is the oldest virus that America has never found a vaccine for or an appropriate treatment – better known as racism, racial terrorism, white supremacy.

And we are now witnessing the clash of those two – one biological and natural in formation, the other manmade as a result of predatory self-interest.

COVID-19 pulled back the covers on the health inequities in Chicago. Our church sits in one of the hot zones for the virus. One Sunday, I read close to 27 names on our digital broadcast of people who had passed as a result of the disease. Our members cannot have traditional funerals, cannot visit their loved ones in hospitals and have been completely devastated by the disease.

On top of that, it’s a community that is dealing with food insecurity, lack of access to appropriate health centers, and the historic disinvestment and divestment has drained the light out of many people serving, working, living on the South and West Sides of Chicago.

It is a real battlefield.

Ahmaud Arbery was heartbreaking. Breonna Taylor was soul-wrenching. The death of George Floyd just drained our souls. To witness and read about the succession of deaths of innocent people, unarmed, who were killed either by police or vigilantes – who felt their privilege gave them the right to police because Black skin in their mind is weaponized.

I remember looking at the videotape – stunned, disgusted, broken and enraged. This was not a case of someone being kidnapped and brutalized by the cartel. This was the Minneapolis police.

When we speak about the protests, 98 percent of the people are protesting peacefully. Maybe 99 percent. And I question the reporting and the referencing of looting because many of the journalists who have good intentions also are shaded by the same disease where immediately they see an identifiable body and make the assumption in reference to looting.

Let me give you a primary example.

The store up the street from our church was burned down. Family Dollar. We went to clean it up the other day. It’s literally a couple blocks from our church … 95th and Wentworth. So we’re doing the clean-up and as we’re cleaning up, people are going into the store. Now, on first read, you would assume it’s looting. But if you took time to listen, we’re watching mothers trying to discover baby formula and diapers because they knew that there’s going to be no place to be able to provide for their children. You could hear the conversations – ‘Is that baby formula?’ They were passing it to each other – ‘I found some.’

And it broke my heart to witness mothers trying to get baby formula because now there is no place for several miles to get baby formula. Without the nuance, we frame the mother as a looter. Knowing the story, you frame the mother as a good mother.

We criminalize people for being poor. It is sinful, it’s immoral and we’re better than this as a nation and as a people.

The protests, the energy has been extraordinary. I’m so proud of the young people, the young organizers who have been putting together protests across the city. What we are witnessing, what we have never witnessed in the history of the United States is a multiracial coalition of people who recognize a fundamental flaw in our democracy at the same time.

It gives me hope. The people who are currently in power think they’re in power. But there’s a generation that’s on the rise that’s ready for a revolution of values, a revival spiritually where we reclaim our moral compass. I believe we’re ready for a true spiritual revolution and revival where we can begin to talk about ideals like beloved community.

The commitment to breaking down those barriers speaks to moral compass. Do we believe that every child and every family has the right to thrive? That’s the question around issues of food justice. We have to think in terms of – What does a healthy community actually look like?

Food justice allows us think holistically. It is not just: We have a grocery store. It’s also about health outcomes. It’s also about education. If children have access to fruits and vegetables, and not processed foods, all of the sudden they’re more attentive in school. Their brains are more able to develop very differently, their bodies develop very differently. And when we teach young people how to grow food it becomes a pathway and methodology for education to teach them science.

It’s about cooking food and creating community. Community gardens reduce violence in communities. Why? You break the silence of “don’t snitch” because everybody is invested in the garden and nobody wants anyone to mess with the turf of the garden. So elders end up building better relationships with young people. Young people desperately want these relationships with elders, they just don’t realize it. And in the process, the community witnesses a revival because they are building relationships that concrete doesn’t allow you to develop.

I like the way that Dr. King says that everybody can serve. And this is how in Chicago: Not everybody is responsible for certain actions, but we are all accountable as citizens of this city.

Annie Hill

Annie Hill runs the Hattie B. Williams food pantry in south suburban Oak Forest, which is named after her sister who died in 2014. The pantry serves about 100 families a week.

Annie Hill poses at the Hattie B. Williams Food Pantry

As everyone else that saw the video (of the death of George Floyd), it was very horrific. I do believe that there is a lot of social injustice, period, when it comes to the Black and Brown community. I think there’s disparity in how they’re treated. I can say that because I’ve seen it with some people that I know.

I believe in peaceful protesting. I believe whatever we do, it should be done in a peaceful manner, simply because I remember when Martin Luther King Jr., he came to the town I grew up in (in Grenada, Mississippi in the 1960s). At that time, I was in the grade (school) when they integrated the schools in the South. I remember him being in town the first day that the Black kids and white kids started school together. That was very significant for me, and it is still significant now. It was just such a peaceful transition at that time.

To see protests now, and how it started out as such a quiet and peaceful protest for change and then in the midst of the peaceful protests we have people who come in and wreak havoc. I don’t know who to blame for any of this, but just to see businesses destroyed where family members have to go to work and now they can’t go to work because they don’t have a place to go, but that was very disturbing for me.

Just seeing a couple of the businesses (affected in my neighborhood), there was a beauty supply store maybe around a year ago, and that just really broke my heart because just to see they put so much into it and now it’s gone. Just to see that in the community, It’s very heartwrenching, very vexing to the spirit. Innocent people losing their jobs because – mind you, we’ve been off work now for two and a half months and now have to deal with this. It’s a bit much.

I did talk to one of my friends yesterday, and she said they were at Jewel at the 87th and the Dan Ryan cleaning up the parking lot. And she said people just came and started to help. So I guess that could be one of the things as a community (to give back), to come together as a community and help to clean up and help the businesses reestablish.

I just don’t want us to get distracted from the big picture that racial injustice – it’s hurtful, I’ll put it that way. It causes a lot of innocent people who have spent time in jail and prison for crimes they did not commit and we’re seeing the same cycle over and over again.

For what I’m feeling, I just don’t want us to get distracted. There is an election in November. A lot of that is not in the media because of all of the things that have distracted us. My whole purpose now is to remind people that we cannot let November 3 slip by. I just don’t want us to get distracted.

And we pray. And we pray.

The Rev. Dr. David Bryant

Pastor Bryant leads the Allen Metropolitan C.M.E. Church in Roseland, which feeds more than 300 people each week.

Pastor Bryant poses in the sanctuary at the Allen Metropolitan C.M.E. Church

(Photo by Kenneth Johnson for the Food Depository)

It’s a shame there’s many adults and children that go to bed with an empty belly in America, which is one of the richest empires in the history of the world. Sadly, this fact is a direct result of systemic racism, which is intricately woven throughout the fabric of life in America. This racism over generations manifests itself in inequalities in education, the disparities in healthcare, the lack of opportunities in employment and the injustices in the judicial system.

COVID-19 exposed the vast disparities in healthcare – not only to America but exposed it to the world. Cornel West, an activist and author, said that when America catches a cold, Black America develops pneumonia.

And the overwhelming majority of people who have died have been minorities – Black, brown and Native Americans. All the data shows that the deaths were a result of preexisting conditions and a lack of access of quality healthcare for minorities. Thus, the pandemic exposed generations of racist policies, policies unjustly bestowed upon a targeted population of society.

Secondly, the unmerciful murder of Mr. George Floyd by a police officer in broad daylight has ignited a movement across the United States of America and the world. Black people are literally sick and tired of blatant oppression, generation after generation, dating all the way back to slavery. It was not only the killing of George Floyd, but also a 14-year-old named Emmett Till in 1955.  A 17-year-old by the name of Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Laquan McDonald. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Botham Jean. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. And so many more who died unjustly and whose names deserve to be called. So what we are experiencing now is a result of generations of pain and suffering of God-fearing, loving people who are hurting now and crying out to be heard.

Some people are trying to label this as a riot, but I call it an uprising, because there are so many more peaceful demonstrations of all races and nationalities of people than those who are trying to hijack the movement with looting and violence and bring distraction from the root problem and issues. Real issues. I do not condone the violence in any way, but I do understand it. The coronavirus is a disease, and racism is a disease. Thus, the land is sick – sick physically and also spiritually.

This past Sunday was an eruption, not just across our city but across the nation. It came home right to our community as well on the south side of Chicago, in the Roseland community. I did get a chance to observe myself and walk our business corridor and see and talk with some of our business owners there to give them hope and let them know we are committed to helping them rebuild. We’ll work together in our community to feed as well as deal with the injustices and the policies that create the hunger.

We are committed to being open and doing whatever we have to do to provide the services of food.

We’ve never had to turn anyone away for a lack of food, and we don’t plan on having to do that today.

I’m 66 years old. I was 10 years old when I was watching the TV of the protests under the leadership of Martin Luther King. I was watching that as a child, I remember it so vividly – a black and white TV – I was sitting there not fully understanding all that was taking place but knowing that something was happening. There was unrest in our society, as a land. And here I am, a grown man, a pastor and I have a flashback to those moments and know that I’ve been called to this moment, to this time.

So I’m hopeful, I have faith. I know God is a God of justice, a God of love for all people and that’s what God would have. For us to love one another, to live together in peace and harmony. There’s enough food for everybody. That’s the fact of it. The land produces enough food for everybody to eat, if we would get away from all of these -isms and love one another.

Every child, regardless of what their color is, no child should be hungry. All of us should feel like that and work together to make sure we have a holistic society that cares for one another and loves each other. I have hope. I’m hopeful. Things can change. It’s gone on a long time, and it’s happened for generations, but it can change.

This is a turning point. I believe this is a shift. I believe it, and it’s finally here, and we have to take advantage of it. Don’t miss this moment and what God is saying to us and saying to our nation.

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