They gathered in a circle in the alley behind the food pantry, just a couple blocks from where the shooting happened earlier that morning.
It was the bi-weekly huddle for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), an Englewood nonprofit focused on community health. Typically, the huddle was a logistical and spiritual check-in of sorts for IMAN’s staff and job training participants.
This was not a typical morning, though. Just a few hours prior, four people were killed and four more were injured in a mass shooting. Police and journalists still milled about the cordoned off street. The IMAN family was clearly shaken by the tragedy.
“As we know, violence is happening so much we’re almost desensitized to it,” said Benjamin “Olu” Gordon, IMAN’s director of construction, addressing the 15 people or so assembled. “But we’re not desensitized to it – we understand the value of life.”
Each person in the circle was invited to share a word on how they felt. One by one, words like blessed, hopeful, concerned, empathy and challenged were spoken into existence. Gordon, a powerfully built man wearing a construction helmet, would later admit to tears behind his dark sunglasses.
They bowed their heads for a dua, a Muslim prayer that calls for God’s help. Then they did what they always do.
They got to work.
‘A different way’
For more than 20 years, IMAN has worked to uplift the Englewood community by providing opportunities for job training, promoting art and mental health, and expanding access to healthy food. Those efforts appear to be culminating in the nonprofit’s holistic vision for the corner of 63rd and Racine in West Englewood, a collaborative effort with other community nonprofits that include a new grocery store expected to open this fall.
Earlier in June, IMAN opened its new food pantry right across the street from where the new market will open. The Food and Wellness Center, as it is known, is the first of four new food pantries opening in Cook County, thanks in part to grants made possible by the generosity of the Food Depository’s donors.
Providing free food to anyone in need aligns with the Muslim faith, said Jamil Wright, who manages the pantry.
“One of the main principles of our faith, and what is strongly stressed, is feeding people, feeding the poor, feeding the hungry, and also helping your neighbors,” said Wright, 61. “It’s real special to me.”
Beyond its three-times-a-week distributions, the Food and Wellness Center will also promote healthy eating with cooking demonstrations and classes. The pantry staff will also be able to connect people to other forms of assistance provided by IMAN, such as housing assistance and job training, Wright said.
“They’re trying to help the community,” said Sataria Martin, 42, who visited the Food and Wellness Center with her 5-year-old son, Artsean.
“They’re trying to show people a different way,” she said, “and that’s beautiful.”
Martin was laid off from her packing job in the south suburbs earlier in the pandemic, a grueling job that she didn’t care for anyway, she said. Since then, she’s mostly been home with her three young children, which she called “a blessing and a curse.”
Since the Food and Wellness Center opened, Martin’s visited regularly to pick up food – milk, eggs, meat, produce and canned goods – that’s helped to feed her family. Now that the pandemic is subsiding, she’s looking for work again.
“I’ve been home long enough,” she said, laughing.
Marlene Black, 58, visited the Food and Wellness Center after seeing a flier about the new pantry. She’s a foster parent for her grandchildren, ages 9 and 11. The family receives a few hundred dollars per month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance benefits, she said, but that money only stretches so far.
She had a special request from her grandkids – chicken legs and burgers to throw on the grill.
“It’s a big help,” the grandmother said of the pantry.
Growing food access
The Fresh Market is a key component of Go Green on Racine, the multifaceted community development plan for the intersection connecting Englewood and West Englewood. IMAN is partnering with Teamwork Englewood, E.G. Woode and the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.) to advance the holistic plan.
Make no mistake, the plan is moving forward. Renovations of the Fresh Market are nearly complete; the store should open by October after obtaining all the necessary city approvals, said general manager Darren Jeters.
The Fresh Market will be an anti-corner store of sorts – no alcohol, tobacco or lottery tickets, Jeters said. And the store and the food pantry will work together symbiotically in both their offerings and their nutrition education efforts.
“We want these two buildings to work together cohesively to give people a complete basket of food,” said Jeters, 26.
Like other Black and Latino communities on Chicago’s South and West Side, Englewood has endured decades of disinvestment and systemic racism, leading to higher rates of poverty and unemployment.
In both Englewood and West Englewood, roughly half of the population is at risk of food insecurity, according to the Food Depository’s analysis, which factors in data on income, unemployment and renter occupancy. The corner of 63rd and Racine straddles the line between both communities.
But there’s also a vibrant ecosystem of businesses, nonprofits and community groups in the Englewood neighborhood working to expand access to healthy food, all of which is well-documented in “The South Side,” a nonfiction book by Chicago journalist Natalie Moore.
For years, IMAN has worked with corner store owners in Englewood to expand their offerings of health food. The Food and Wellness Center is a natural extension of that work, said community organizer Ahmad Jitan, and an important piece of the group’s larger vision for the future.
“This was a perfect storm of this is something we can do right now,” said Jitan, 31. “It’s a sustainable model that’s connected to what we’re building at this intersection.”
A few days after the tragedy in Englewood, IMAN hosted a Juneteenth celebration near the corner of 63rd and Racine. There was spoken word poetry and dance, as the smell of barbecue wafted through the air. There were tours of the new store and excited chatter for what it would mean to the community.
On a hot summer day of celebration, it was easy to see what they’re building in Englewood.
And it was beautiful to behold.